Thursday, February 28, 2013

Waiting for a Woman MLA

The NPF-BJP combine, called the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, returned to power in the hill state, crushing its near-rivals and coming just shy of a two-thirds majority. The NPF itself won an absolute majority of its own but, as its leader and CM Neiphiu Rio pointed out, it would remain within the DAN. The reason for this seems simple - the NPF is eyeing the 2014 General Election, hoping its ally would come to power so that a final solution to the Naga problem could be sealed.

The elections went as expected, with the BJP opening its account in the state for the first time. It's lone woman candidate however, lost. Nagaland has a peculiar situation: while women are seen in virtually every sphere of domestic life, they have been completely absent in the Legislative Assembly - not one elected since it was created from Assam! The reason is widely attributed to Naga customary law (which enjoys Constitutional protection), which keeps women out of the decision-making structures.

With the return of DAN, little change can be expected in the state. However, this election will have ramifications in the next general election, as the NPF and pro-Nagalim groups will seek to bring the NDA to power so as to resolve the Naga conflict. 

Wither Thou Purno?

The election results in Meghalaya have thrown up a virtual repeat of 2008, with the Congress coming out on top but just short of a majority. However, the regional UDP's eight seats are quite enough for the two to form a coalition with a two-thirds majority to boot.

It's a different story for the NCP though: the party that tried to form a coalition government last time (the so-called MPA) saw its numbers crashing after PA Sangma left the party over the Presidential election. It will now sit firmly in the Opposition benches.

With relative peace coming to the state, there are still a number of issues that plagues it, the most serious of them being illegal mining activities and water scarcity in the winter months. While the government of Mukul Sangma, who seems all set to return as CM, has done some good especially in terms of road infrastructure in the state, there is still massive corruption and a general lack of visionary leadership that can show the youth of Meghalaya the way ahead. That is perhaps, the tragedy of this election. 

Defending the Last Bastion

The CPI(M)-led Left Front returned to a thumping victory in Tripura, winning 80% of the seats and destroying all opposition parties apart from the Congress. This marks the fifth consecutive victory for the Left in the Bengali-dominated Northeastern state, a record in the region.

Chief Minister Manik Sarkar is all set to begin his fourth consecutive term in what promises to be an exciting moment for the state. With trade ties between India and Bangladesh on the upswing, new transit arrangements could just help the state break out of its isolation and return to the prosperous, pre-Partition days. In addition, the expansion of the Indian Railways network all the way to Agartala and new trains to be run in the region would mean increasing prosperity for the people there.

Interestingly, the Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra, the Congress' ally that is often seen as a mask for underground militant groups, was defeated comprehensively, losing in each and every one of the seats it contested. This is perhaps the clearest sign yet that the state has buried militancy. Indeed, as The Hindu pointed out,  the road network in the state has improved so much that surface transport was the exclusive medium of transportation for the first time.

Tripura is certainly emerging as the next powerhouse of the northeastern region, ready to challenge Assam's dominance. The return of the government and the promised peace and stability would be ideal conditions for that. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Few Options for Sri Lanka

A damning documentary about the murder of Prabhakaran's son under military custody could prove to be the next source of increasing tensions between India and Sri Lanka, indeed the whole world and Sri Lanka, as the United Nationa Human Rights Commission discusses the matter in Geneva. The controversial impeachment of the country's Chief Justice would only add fuel to the fire.

The last time the island nation was discussed at the UNHRC, it received a drubbing with a resolution against it being passed, sponsored by the United States and supported by much of the West, Israel and also India. For India, the propellant was undoubtedly pressure from Tamil Nadu, where the local population shares great sympathies with the Tamils in Sri Lanka. And not just Tamil Nadu, many Indians share concern over the blatant violation of rights during the Fourth Eelam War, although they do not share the same sympathies for the LTTE.

The sad part of this story is the the country seems to be sliding into an oligarchy of President Rajpaksa's family. Indeed, if one goes through the key players in the controversial impeachment, it seems obvious that it was ordered right from the President's office and was executed by his family itself - a dangerous sign for a country that is also split along ethnic lines. This time at the UNHRC, Sri Lanka looks all set to be at the receiving end of yet another country-specific resolution.

The question is - will India support it this time? While fairness and a commitment to its own Constitutional principles, along with political pressure from Tamil Nadu, would dictate that India vote against Sri Lanka, realpolitik says otherwise: India's own human rights record under AFSPA has been criticized with and outside India. Supporting a country-specific resolution for the second time could invite trouble for us in the future and the West will certainly not come to our aid then.

It is a tricky situation and the best solution lies in pressurizing the country into implementing the Rajiv Gandhi accords on the '13th Amendment Plus.' Without that, it seems nearly impossible for the country to escape its dark past. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

An Enlightening Journey

It was my privilege to have spent 10 days in February in Japan on the invitation of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and MHRD, Govt. of India to get a first-hand view of the earthquake reconstruction efforts there after the Great East Japan Earthquake of March, 2011 as part of the Kizuna Project.

A group of 69 students from IIT D, R, K, Kgp, G, B, M, H and IIIT Jabalpur spent ten days exploring Chiba and the Miyagi prefecture, hearing stories, seeing for themselves the aftermath of the disaster while a being taken care of by the warm hospitality that the people of Japan are known for. At the same time, we participated in various cultural activities and learned some common words and manners from Japan.

In this short series Kizuna: Building Bonds, we will go through some of the finer points of what it means to rebuild your life and what Japan feels like to an Indian. 

A Round of Awards

Feb. 28 is celebrated as Science Day all over India to commemorate the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of CV Raman - aptly called the 'Raman Effect' - and is a proud moment for Indian scientists who strive to take the country's research to global standards. In the spirit of this day, IIT Roorkee celebrates Science Day every year by organizing a scientific lecture.

This year, Prof. RN Mukherjee, Director, IISER Kolkata has been invited to deliver that lecture in the presence of the Director of IIT Roorkee. It will be the second time that I will be attending the Science Day programme. I did not do so in my first year because I was in DPT, Saharanpur and in my second year because I was basically uninterested. So why the sudden interest?

Well, the institute also gives away Alumni-sponsored awards that day, and as the oldest and largest department, the Civil Engineering Department's share of awards is pretty big. Which is why I am very happy to be receiving the awards for highest CGPA for the second year in a row. And because academics gets tougher with every year you cross, the highest CGPA at the end of third year has two awards:

Taran Chand Kanti Devi Cash Prize of Rs. 2500
Gauri Shankar - Malti Cash Prize of Rs. 10,000

After the Rs. 65,000 from OPJEMS, this added boost will certainly help me significantly. Since I got into the BTP proper, I have had to install a variety of applications on my laptop to do my work, which has mostly filled up the space on it. I do intend to get myself a much-needed external HDD to compensate for that - and it seems quite a good deal too. As the top student of the Civil Engineering Department for two years running (and the top student in my former branch as well), it seems only fair that my work gets rewarded.

And then, there is also the wonderful high tea that follows the function, which I always look forward to, especially the onion pakodas

On Proficiency Grades

A controversy has come up recently over one of the reforms instituted by the Senate on the recommendation of the IAPC, of which I am a member. The issue here is the decision to eliminate the credits attached to Proficiency and Discipline. These credits are awarded by the Dean of Students Welfare but are put in place by the Dean of Academic Studies. The DOSW was not consulted for this because it was not a question of how to award the grades but whether there should be any grades at all - the division of jurisdiction is clear. Furthermore, three students nominated by the DOSW (whether he likes it or not) are members of the IAPC and participate in its discussions.

The issue at hand is whether the grades for proficiency and discipline serve their purpose or not. Lets begin with the proficiency - the aim of the credits allotted to it is to encourage students to have a more balanced personality and participate in extracurricular activities. The reality is that students who want to do so will do so in any case - and those who don't will find some way to get over it. Consider the way grades for proficiencies administered by the Sports Councils are awarded. For those who make it to inter-IIT, it's fair to award an A+. For those who do not, the common test is a running test, wherein the students has to complete one or two rounds of LBS Stadium and the grade is decided based on time taken, with a maximum possible grade of B+. None of this is official of course - it is simply what happens. Therefore, a student with a proficiency of Badminton can obtain a B+ in it without ever playing a single game of badminton the whole year. And of course, B+ is counted as a satisfactory grade.

Take the case of the proficiencies administered by the Cultural Council or the Hobbies Club: their activities are well-nigh impossible to quantify. You can put a number to the minutes taken to run two rounds, how do you do it for the quality of speeches made? Or for the kinds of moves danced? Or for the kind of music played? If somebody asks why he got a B+ and someone else got an A, which normal variate are you supposed to use to delineate mean + 1.5*SD? And furthermore, who decides? Neither of the two have any trained coaches, unlike the Sports Council, and it is almost always the student Secretary who decides. The Cultural Council has woefully poor infrastructure and it is unable to even imagine any expansion, so how is it supposed to hold tests and award marks on a professional basis while working in the midst of dogs on the Senate Steps?

The only people rooting for Proficiency Grades are those who are not interested in their proficiency but are sure of exercising their influence with the student secretary for a decent grade. Of what use is such a grade - does it lead to any rounded personality or just another letter on the grade sheet? Ironically, the pervasive culture of using influence to obtain a grade strongly disincentivizes students who take their extracurriculars seriously from doing so - in direct opposition to what the credits were meant to do. A student who works regularly for his section has no incentive to do so when he gets the same grade as someone who does not: the only reason that he continues to do so is because he is genuinely interested in it and that will not change without any credits. We should be looking to boost the very best and not push them down to level of the worst.

Coming to the discipline grade - this is yet another sham grade that has failed to serve its purpose. True, it has more influence than the proficiency grades, but it too has been unable to enforce any discipline on students. A vast majority get an A+ - indeed, the only reason some students want it to stay is because it is often their one and only A+ on the gradesheet, not because they want to be disciplined. One of the concerns expressed is that the new Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory (S/U) scheme will lead to students committing minor offences being awarded a U grade and hampering their placements later. Well, the assumption there is that the only satisfactory score is 100 - if it is accepted that students do, at times, break rules, then it should also be accepted that going below 100 on the discipline score is a natural event that need not be deemed unsatisfactory. Instead, some line can be drawn - say 75 - below which it is certainly unsatisfactory. Innovations of the Office of the DOSW, such as monetary fines as equivalent to marks and suspended fines, already make it harder to lose marks in any case.

The sum total of the discussion on this item is that it is high-time to treat students of the institute as adults and let them fail at their own doings in order to learn. If someone is uninterested in any extracurricular activity except computer games, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to force them to participate in an ECA: this fact needs to be accepted and the high-handed, paternal attitude that is often taken needs to be shown the door. Similarly, discipline needs to be understood as something that can be inculcated only through example and the freedom to make mistakes and not by an enforced grade that has been diluted in any case. The reforms proposed by the IAPC have been made after much deliberation and will go far in changing IITR for the better and I am proud to have been associated with it. 

On Indian Codes

Nearly through with my engineering studies at IIT Roorkee, I feel it necessary to comment on the various codes of practice in use in India, particularly those published and prepared by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and the Indian Roads Congress (IRC). While the codes are useful, they also reflect a deep-rooted lack of innovation that has held us back on the path to development.

First, the BIS codes, called the 'Indian Standards' or IS. They are good, but they do not get updated soon enough. A lot of codes are over thirty years old and the field has moved on since then. It is important for an organization like BIS to not just remain updated but to stay ahead of the curve in order to produce codes of international standard. Moreover, there is an acute lack of focus on new and smart construction materials, which does not facilitate the development of the sector. Although BIS works with several organizations to prepare these codes, this engagement needs to be deepened as well as broadened. In this respect, engaging undergraduate and postgraduate students would be a good step ahead.

The case is not as rosy for the IRC codes, sadly. From what I have seen, the research on standardizing roads and railways in India is next to nil - we seem to be happy to simply copy American codes, taking care to make cosmetic changes in the process. For example, our codes on road capacity are based almost entirely on the US Highway Capacity Manual, but because the road conditions are different, all quantitative data is removed and we are left with a qualitative document that is of hardly any use to designers and planners.

This culture of copying foreign codes is endemic in Indian research and is a cause of grave concern for a country that likes to call itself an emerging power. It is not just that a copied code does not adequately suit Indian conditions - rather, copying codes creates a sense of complacency, which can be broken only after a major disaster takes place. And given that a lot of public money is put into making these codes, a major disaster is certainly not the desired outcome.

It is time academia comes out against this vile practice of copying codes from developed countries and works on planning the development of better, customized codes that will serve Indian engineers in the years to come. 

Need More, Much More

Railway Minister PK Bansal became the first Congressman to deliver the Railway Budget in nearly two decades. Despite the high hopes placed on him, his budget cannot be really described as pathbreaking - and perhaps that is fair, given the fact that  a general election is up next year. Yet, it is not a run of the mill budget either - it is certainly more balanced than virtually all the previous ones. In fact, the only better one was probably the one that Dinesh Trivedi made, but which Mamatadi quickly overturned.

The budget did try to make some amends - it rightly raised fares, although not directly (political expediency, of course). It recognized the need for the railways to keep pace with the times. The introduction of the 'Anubhuti' coach - call it Business Class on rail - is a good step in this regard. And, very rightly, 'fares will be commensurate.' The planned usage of SMS, Real-time technology and automated systems will be a good move, if properly implemented.

A special case was made out for the most-abused part of IR - IRCTC and its website. Minister Bansal finally took note of the terrible system and his promise to more than triple its capacity through so-called next generation systems will significantly make it easier to use and provide much better user-experience. The idea of linking the system to the Aadhaar number is also good.

But the fact is that not enough thrust has been placed on making the railways sustainable - it is still a very stop-gap, ad hoc set of measures. The Minister did not present a vision that was large enough for the lifeline of the nation, as former Minister Trivedi had. The excessive dependence on freight to subsidize passenger fares is clearly unsustainable and is not even meetings its targets right now. No vision of faster, better trains has been made: the whole concept of capacity still hinges on corridors and rolling stock and not enough on speed and a smarter network.

On the bright side, the focus on connectivity to border states in the Northeast, particularly the historic connection of Arunachal Pradesh to the network, is a welcome move of not merely strategic importance but also human importance - as a professor of Transportation Engineering once told me, there is no such thing as patriotism. No connectivity is as good as no country. 

China's Tragedy of Errors

North Korea's third nuclear test, this time with what appears to be an enriched uranium-based miniature device, should serve as a wake-up call to the world at large over how Communist China has misused its nuclear weapons and brought the world to a state of grave danger.

If it is true that the new device was uranium-based, as scientific fact seems to point towards, then it is highly likely that the source of the technology was Pakistan, which itself received tremendous aid from China to clandestinely develop its nuclear weapons program. It is documented fact that the same Pakistan funneled nuclear secrets to DPRK through its Prime Minister to obtain better missile technology. In all this, China has been the enabler and the initiator or all troubles.

And, rather ironically for China, this could be the very thing that makes its worst nightmares come true. With a multiplied risk of a North Korean nuclear attack, ROK and Japan would be in ever-greater need of an increased American military and nuclear presence in Northeast Asia. China has invited this on itself. The American 'pivot' to Asia, unveiled by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is because China has failed to fool the world about its hegemonic ambitions.

After this test, it is obvious that sanctions have no effect on the Communist regime in DPRK - a military solution clearly seems to be in the offing. China has failed to stop the militarization of the Korean Peninsula and is dragging American back to the region - and all this because of a short-sighted vision to support the failed state of Pakistan to prevent any competition from India in the geopolitical space. A failed policy for sure. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Nation-Building in Contrast

Meghalaya and Nagaland recorded impressive voter turnout in their just-concluded Assembly Elections, the significance of which was enhanced by calls for a boycott from a handful of underground insurgent groups that seem to have lost virtually all favour with the local population. But when studied with their sister state from the Northeast, Manipur, it paints a strange picture.

Meghalaya has transformed itself miraculously from the days of insurgency to now, when its leaders have made a mark for themselves at the national level. The only insurgent group that called for a boycott - the HNLC - has virtually no sway in the state anymore and operates out of secret camps on the Bangladesh border. These elections will actually decide the political future of the most well-known face from the state - Purno Sangma, the former Lok Sabha Speaker and the NDA's Presidential candidate in 2012. Whether his NPP will be able to dent the Congress' base will determine as to whether he and his family have any relevance after the failed bid for the Presidency. It will also determine the influence of the NCP in the Northeast, of which PA Sangma was the linchpin.

In Nagaland, the peace between the Government of India and the NSCN (IM), albeit a shaky one, has seen significant improvement in the situation of the state. Yet, the on and off hostilities with neighbouring Meghalaya and Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio's support for a Naga suprastate are very worrying for New Delhi. The cost of peace has been high - while Th. Muivah does use an Indian passport now, the parallel revolutionary government there is deeply disconcerting and cannot last forever. If the current spell of peace is not effectively used, there could be serious consequences for India's unity and territorial integrity.

Contrast these two cases with Manipur, where the answer from Day One has been to use military force to forcefully create a facade of peace and reduce the beautiful state to a colony. The absolute neglect of the state reflects in the way insurgent groups have not been weakened even after fifty years of military rule and it continues to remain near the very bottom on development scales. The useful outcomes from political negotiations on Meghalaya and Nagaland should serve as a realization that you cannot solve complex issues of ethnic identity through martial diktat.  

Very Funny

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA (2012)

Produced By: Sony Animation Pictures
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Starring (voice): Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James and others
Pros: Imaginative use of visual effects
Cons: Boring, preachy at times, excessive use of cliche
Rating: ** (2 of 5)

When Bram Stoker wrote his classic Dracula, little would he have imagined that someone, in a time far, far away, would have been able to turn the story upside down and (try to) make it funny too. That's exactly what Hotel Transylvania does, or rather fails desperately trying.

The first and last good thing I can say about the movie is what I generally end up saying about most animated movies - the effects were good. Yes, we have now integrated cinematography and computer science so well that every animated movie keeps getting better and better. If only the stories would improve too. For the first and certainly not the last bad thing I can is that it was a poor attempt to create humour.

Exhibit A: the multitude of characters. Sure, monsters have been a part of popular culture for centuries and they do make for good entertainment - but when you have virtually every monster imagined in history in one movie, it becomes a little too much. And then, the aim does not even seem to be to entertain but rather to preach: about how differences can be overcome, about the common emotions that every creature shares and similar such popular ideas. It would've made for a good moral science lecture. Oh wait, this was a movie.

Talking about imagination though, it's not exactly a very imaginative movie. Every popular cliche right from the Salem witch-hunt is incorporated at every crucial and every not-so-crucial juncture of the movie: you can even guess what's coming up next at the rate it's going. All that's left was to bring in some spice from Twilight when the vampire and the human kissed and you would've gotten a zero from me.

A two is most certainly justified. Unless you have an excess of spare time (like I had on the JAL flight), avoid this one. (OTFS)

Suspense Unbound

ARGO (2012)

Produced By: Warner Bros. and others
Director: Ben Affleck
Starring: Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin, Victor Garber and others
Pros: Keeps you on the edge, good characterization, splendid acting
Cons: Can get a little complicated
Rating: *** (3 of 5)

Winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Motion Picture (though I'd still stand with Lincoln).

Well, it's not always that a movie that you pick up for no particular reason from the on-board entertainment listings of Japan Airlines turns out to be well worth your time. While the name gave absolutely no clue about the movie, Argo was certainly worth watching.

For one, it was not a one-sided movie. The Iranian Revolution was, after all, a reaction to massive American interference and the asylum granted to the Shah was a major policy error. Yet, the storming of the American Embassy, clearly State-supported, was an act of war that should have been avoided. Rather than taking sides or even trying to find a balance, Affleck has done what is right and what is hardest: just state the facts as they are.

That does not mean that the movie is a textbook depiction of facts. Far from it - the suspense and tension that grips you is it's strongest point. The movie never ceases to leave you guessing as to what will happen next. But it comes with one problem: the storyline, an attempt to mix a hostage crisis in Tehran with a film in California, was rather confusing to begin with. I might have simply changed the movie had it not moved on soon enough!

The movie also comes with several characters, and even characters played by characters. The way the handle their transformation is well-depicted threw a slew of talented actors that complete the movie and make it a pleasure to watch. The recreation of Tehran, its airport and the last fateful flight out of Iranian airspace leaves viewers with a deep sense of relief: you would take a deep breath along with the actors and then release it when they do.

Overall, a good movie that certainly deserves all its awards. (OTFS)

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Final Countdown

No, this is not a review of Europe's hit classic. After all, IPR tells you that generic terms cannot have a copyright on them. And certainly not in situations where they are most appropriate - such as this one. As one enterprising student pointed out, there are 80 days left for us in IIT Roorkee. Lets do some simple mathematics here (yes, I used a calculator):

I was supposed to spend five years at IIT Roorkee with my IMT PST course, which I was very glad to have to do. Now, assuming that we have three months' worth of holidays here, that works out to 365-30*4 = 245 days per year. Multiply that with five years, and I was supposed to have 1,225 days here. But of course, as history knows, I lost one year after that disastrous branch change of 2010. So, my number of days fell to 980 days here. And with 80 days to go, using the common parlance of IITians, I am (980-80)*100/980 = 92% on my way to becoming a Civil Engineering from IIT Roorkee.

Sadly, statistics hide a lot. Do I really feel like a civil engineer? Well, I have the theoretical knowledge alright, but as my BTP has shown, I still have much to learn. And learning opportunities I will have, if everything goes my way.

But out of academics, my good times in IITR have ended much before. After my branch change in first year, there was this sense of loss that has lingered ever since: my entire second year went by recuperating from that loss. While third year was as good as the first and definitely ranks as the high-point of my life thus far, the final year has proven to be a downward fall all the way. So much so that in many ways, I am definitely looking forward to leaving.

I spent a good hour yesterday wrestling with that miracle of Indian bureaucracy - IRCTC - to book my tickets home. A Rajdhani no less, WL it may be (like anybody ever gets confirmed tickets for a Rajdhani this early!). It felt funny - it was a trip home that I had come to regard as routine, just another part of life. Yet, the meaning of life had changed for us the day we came to IIT Roorkee to build our future. And now it's nearly time to leave this life behind and walk into the darkness ahead.

92% done and so much more to go... 

Time to Think Big

The twin blasts that rocked Hyderabad and killed several people are an alarm bell about the dismal state of internal security that India has. Since Chidambaram left the Home Ministry, key reforms in this field have been ignored by Home Minister Shinde. But the time has now come to have a look at these reforms again.

The first is the National Counter-terrorism Centre (NCTC), which the former Minister fought so strongly for in the face of huge opposition from the states. Even in the Hyderabad case, it is becoming increasingly obvious that there was some sort of intelligence from multiple sources but it was too difficult to act upon. A multiplicity of intelligence shrouds the local police force's understanding and limits their capability to respond. Therefore, coordination among these agencies with real-time powers in adverse situations such as an imminent terrorist strike is necessary - which is what the NCTC is all about. Hiding behind the constitutional role of the states in law and order enforcement (the Constitution was, after all, not written in an age of terrorism) will not help.

The second is also perhaps the hardest: police reforms. Collecting intelligence is not possible without grassroots coordination and community policing. Sadly, in India, the police is still an archaic, colonial-era institution that inspires anything but confidence from locals. People avoid the police and expecting them to share information with them is a pipe dream. Police reforms is the utmost need of the hour and the answer to not just terrorism, but several problems.

And thirdly, there is a good case for dividing the Home Ministry into two - a Ministry of Internal Security and  a Ministry of Internal Affairs. While the latter would handle the routine work of the MHA, the former would be tasked exclusively with handling the more serious matters of internal security. The Home Ministry has always been second to only the PMO and this puts a massive burden on the Minister. By having a full-time, accountable head for internal security, responsibility can be better appropriated.  

The New Normal

Next week marks the all-new Mid-Term Examination - the one and only one in the semester. And it also marks the last MTE set for me. Perhaps it's a bit of luck that I managed to see the wee beginnings of what may just be a new IITR. Only a wee bit though - after all, with just three subjects, it's not much of an MTE!

But these three subjects are more like an extended form of Probability and Statistics with some Psychology mixed in. First there is CE-462, a subject that is quite easy on the face of it, but is easily the most challenging of all because it has not been taught. There is, after all, only so much that can be deciphered from notes and codes! On the other end of the spectrum is IBM-06, a subject that is so easy that any tiny mistake can lead to devastation. How do I always manage to get myself into things like these?

And then there is CE-406, which is less Civil Engineering and more mathematics. Theoretically, that's a good thing, but the nature of the subject is such that any small error in calculation can prove costly. Practice is therefore, the key.

But all this pales before the biggest evaluation of all: CE-402. March 15 is the second evaluation and it's high alert. After a successful stint with the Transportation Division, I went back to Geomatics and am now dishing out cross-sections to all the needy! But the worst is yet to come - 2D FEM analysis. Be afraid. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Game of Alliances


Hear ye, hear ye! Come and hear this tale! A tale of vengeance, battle and tragedy! Hear ye, hear ye!

We live in the Discovered World. We, the civilized dwellers who vanquished the barbarians and established our seven empires. Our seven races divided the world for prosperity and cooperation. This is the tale of centuries of cooperation and a single moment of betrayal. And the world was never the same again.

***

Centuries ago, the world was divided among seven empires for seven races: Dulsburg, the most powerful and northernmost empire was seen as the leader of the world. Its vast, rich lands grew the crops that fed much of the world; its rich middle class promoted trade. The Dolcian trade routes were so busy that it created several trading colonies for their merchants, spread across the Discovered World.

In the backdrop of this great time of prosperity came the World Fair. A first of its kind, it was an attempt to bring the seven empires together to share in the prosperity of Dulsburg. All seven sent their emperors - from Rorankite in the far east to Magdeburg in the deep south to Busan in the west: none would miss this spectacle.

Little did the emperors know that they were in for a rude surprise. In the midst of fete, the Dolcian Emperor announced that, as the largest military force in the Discovered World, his empire now expected tribute from all the others. If there was any resistance, there would be an economic blockade. This, he said, was the price that Dulsburg now demanded for the prosperous world it had built.

The emperors were shocked - and some amused. For the Dolcian trade was well-known, its military might was hardly seen as the greatest in the world. Yet, they chose to humour Dulsburg in the hope of increased trade - and also with full knowledge that the Dolcian army would not be able to battle so far anyway. All, except two: Rorankite and Keiyo were the immediate neighbours of Dulsburg and the only ones who could be hampered.

In the years ahead, Dulsburg carried out what it said it would: it seized control of trade routes in its region and demanded tribute in exchange for safe passage. Within a short span of time, its stamp could be seen everywhere in the northern world. The empires far away from its influence - Kamchetka, Magdeburg, Busan and Glasgow - merely smiled and were even a little pleased to see the drama up north. But Keiyo and Rorankite had had enough.

In a secret location in the forests of the northern world, the emperors of the two kingdoms met and signed a secret pact. Keiyo and Rorankite, each individually smaller than Dulsburg, would form an alliance to oppose the marauder. It was a great risk - neither had very experienced armies and they had never worked together before. Nonetheless, it was agreed that it was important to fight lest they be annexed one day.

Fight to the end, head held high,
Or fall unquestioned at their feet.
From the North and East came the soldiers,
Loyal to the seat of Rorankite.
From the South and West marched the feet,
Of the patriots of Keiyo.
Clashes and battles, victories and defeat,
Blood and sword, grime and heat.
The greatest battle ever fought,
Sons lost, wives widowed.
And the aggressor did finally fall. 

The Great Northern War ended with a defeat for Dulsburg that ended its hegemony of the northern world. For three years after the defeat, it was governed by the Allied Military Council of Rorankite and Keiyo, which drafted a pacifist constitution to prevent a repeat. The other powers were stunned by the defeat and began creating their own armies for self-defense. The world was never the same again.

Before the end of the Allied Occupation of Dulsburg, as a final insult to injury, Rorankite decided to claim hegemony in the trading routes in the far east. There, Dulsburg had a small trading settlement that was the backbone of its trade in the region. By capturing it, Rorankite would become the master of the region. But it would come at a price: the people of the settlement were of Dolcian blood and there was nothing but hatred towards them in Rorankite.

The last proclamation of the Allied Military Council read:
By order of the Supreme Leader of the Allied Military Council of Rorankite and Keiyo in the Dulsburg Highlands, the territory of Syracuse is hereby transferred to the permanent possession of Rorankite and will remain its colony. 

And so it has been ever since. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Emperor's Rage


The whole Kingdom has been talking about it, they called it the most scandalous act in history. The Emperor of our great confederacy publicly humiliated before all the other Kings, his succession plan publicly rejected by the Governor-General: it only confirmed our status as a colony that could not determine its own future.

I heard these words over and over as I tried to make Prince Seleucus sleep - but try as I might, I could not. If once upon a time he would obey my every command, the Prince was now a grown man who, it seems, had no time for the housekeeper who raised him. That is perhaps the way life works. But I could not have agreed with him more: our land was once so prosperous, so mighty. We were of the blood of the Dulsburgs. Today, we are treated like dogs.

"And he's not even appointed by the Rorankite Secretariat, he is simply an appointee of the King of Chimeria!" the Prince exclaimed before finally closing his eyes in bed.

Even a simple person like me knew what he was talking about, it was a known fact to all those who loved Syracuse. Rorankite is a strange Empire: it does not have an Emperor! Its many constituent states, each more powerful than Syracuse, create a strange bureaucratic system that they call the Secretariat headed by the most feared man in Syracuse: the Director. A vile man who is supposed to handle all our appeals but has a deep-rooted hatred for us Syrenicians. It is said that his ancestor was killed in the mighty war with the Dulsburgs and since then, his family has hated our kind.

But he would not have mattered had the Governor-General not been worse. He is appointed by the King of Chymeria, the easternmost member of Rorankite and to the west of Syracuse. It is this Kingdom that holds our custody, our fate. And from there comes this vile, vicious man who has worked tirelessly to ruin my home.

I have always been enamored by the royal weapons the two princes have used. It is not that I enjoy violence - I am appalled by it - but sometimes I wish I could take a sword and decapitate this Governor-General. I wish I could march to Rorankite and destroy it and set my homeland free.

If only I could make a wish.   

The Feast of the Colonized


The truest King is he for whom all are one:
Family, friends, people - one and all. 

It has been so many years - that day, when my successor, Prince Seleucus, left for the Academy is still so vivid in my mind. I have waited since then, counting each day as they passed into weeks, months and years. It is not appropriate for a King to show excessive affection towards anyone, even his successor, but it is very difficult not to do so in practice.

But the wait has almost ended. All of Syracuse awaits a chance to see their crown prince in the Royal Palace - as do I. The feast is set and the entire palace is talking about it. The preparations have been on for a week, with each King within the Syrenician Confederacy preparing to attend the royal dinner.Seleucus has always been prepared to take over as Emperor from me, just that he needed to be chiseled properly for the finer points of the role. Tonight, I hope to prepare him for the last step.

***

The Secretaries of the Central City were lined up as per my instructions to receive the guests. All eighteen constituents of the confederacy were to send their Kings to attend, and each would have to be welcomed by the secretaries of this, the capital city.

As we began to walk down the last few steps to the great banquet hall, I realized that I had never seen Seleucus even once since he had left for his training. How would he look - older, yet younger, wiser, more patient? I had just his friend and Prince-Commander Normander to go by. I was anxious now to see them together.


The feast was set, the guests prepared
And then came their hero, the lad unmet
By his side, his brother of long;
And then came the Emperor, majestic and fine.
Some to the back, some to the front,
The seats were moved, the guests were fed.
Some to the back, some to the front,
The Emperor to the right, his prince to the left.
And the conqueror reigned. 


And then he came in - he, with whom rests control of Syracuse. The conqueror, the colonizer, the Governor-General. It is the tragedy of our homeland that we are a colony of the mighty Empire of Rorankite. The Emperor, the Kings of the Confederacy: they are all subservient to him. I remember the day when Seleucus and Normander tried to oppose him and were put in the dungeons for a day as punishment: anger burned within me, but there was so little that I could do.

Syracuse is a colony to the far east of the mighty Empire of Rorankite. We were annexed after a great war between the Empires of the Discovered World. Our free state, founded on the principle of free movement and trade, was transformed into a slave-land, paying tribute every year to the coffers of their Secretariat for no fault of our own. Oh, how I wish I could have done something to remove these thieves from my land. But my Army is under their control, our trade routes tightly controlled by their Secretariat. Emperor I am, but only in name.

***

The Academy had trained him well - he ate with the perfection due from any royalty. I, for one, could not eat properly. It wasn't the presence of the Governor-General to my left, I had never feared him. Rather, I was waiting for the right moment to make my plan public. And it came just after the Governor-General had spoken - as always, the first to speak.

I rose to the podium and coughed a bit - it was unusual for I generally never hesitated before a speech. But I began my speech with the general words of congratulations to Seleucus and Normander, the able princes who would rule the confederacy. And then I made it known: "My kinsmen, it is my wish to see Prince Seleucus crowned by the end of the year." A loud whispering went through the hall - I had clearly surprised them. But they were happy, of that I was certain.

And then the Governor-General rose out of turn. Something was amiss: I resumed my seat as courtesy would call so that he could speak. "There will be no such crowning this year," he said. "The Secretariat of Rorankite will determine when that will happen." He left it to be understood that the Emperor of Syracuse would not be the one to decide. It was scandalous: I had been over-ruled.

None spoke further as we finished our meal. 

Looming Victory?

With the voting in Tripura coming to an end and the voter turnout once again recording a high value, it seems Tripura could be in for a major election result. And all indicators are for Manik Sarkar's Left Front Government to make a comeback.

The secret to this government's success is rooted in the way it has managed tribal-non-tribal relations. This is a common issue in all the states of Northeast India and it is not easy to handle it. Manik Sarkar seems to know that any balance hinges on the economic deliveries of the government in power and that is what he seems to have focused on.  Indeed, Tripura comes out well on implementation of Central Government schemes.

Now, with a new High Court and an expected upgrading of Agartala Airport, the state seems to be set to challenge Assam's traditional hegemony as the leader of the Northeastern States. With Manik Sarkar's return, Tripura might just be the next big story from the region. 

A Just End

The hanging of Afzal Guru, convicted in the 2001 Parliament Attack case, was a just and rightful conclusion to an attack that threatened the very basis of our Republic and that has seen so much political bickering that it threatened to make a joke of our Constitution. Fortunately, President Pranab Mukherjee chose to rightly fulfill his duty as the custodian of the Constitution by rejecting Afzal Guru's mercy petition and ordering his hanging. This was the second execution during his tenure and he deserves praise for his decisiveness.

There is of course the question of retaining the death penalty and it is a debate that has merits on either side. Unfortunately, the fact that India has been slow to execute convicts stems not from this debate but is actually politically-driven. In Afzal Guru's case, it was a mix of Kashmiri politics and general minority-baiting that led to the inordinate delay. Even the Supreme Court lamented this delay as a travesty of the Constitution.

It is not the prerogative of the President of even the judiciary to decide the merits or otherwise of the death penalty - Parliament alone is empowered to do that. As long as Parliament believes that the penalty must remain, it must remain and must be enforced by the executive as and when directed by the judiciary. Thus, the President is the end of a process laid out in the Constitution to award a death penalty and he must do so based on the merits of the case and not on the merits or demerits of the death penalty itself.

By swiftly dealing with cases such as Afzal Guru and Kasab, President Mukherjee has once again raised the bar for future Heads of State. 

The Princes Return


Syracuse, my home. I still remember that day I left for the Academy, to learn the art of statecraft, away from my beloved land. I remember being taken away by royal carriage through the gilded gates that marked the entrance to our little kingdom. Syracuse, on the easternmost flank of the Discovered World, was like a dream for me through those tiring years at the Academy. They said that every prince must go through the Academy in order to rule - but the real reason was to create a sense of detachment from the Kingdom. Too much emotional attachment, we were taught, was a bad thing.

But now the time has come to return to the land I loved. We were taught to exercise emotional detachment from the kingdom - all that seemed so irrelevant as the royal guards saluted my carriage as we made our way to the palace. There, waiting for me with open arms at the threshold, was the Royal Housekeeper who had taken care of me when I was young - a mother to me and indeed, to all the royal princes.

"Welcome home, Prince Seleucus," she said with a beaming smile. That was all I needed to assure myself that I was not dreaming. I was home.

***

The work of a prince does not afford any time to rest. I had just changed from my traveling clothes, embellished with the seal of the Academy, when I was informed that I was to undertake a review of the Central City of the Kingdom. Syracuse was a confederacy, meaning that we had many kingdoms belonging to the great homeland. My Kingdom was the Central City - the one that rules the confederacy. It was a tricky balance that the King had to maintain: he was, after all, first among equals and had to balance several competing claims. That distinction was seen even in the princes - I was destined to be the next King, but so were many others in their own capacities.

Syracuse had changed much since I had left: new technologies had come up, the way things were done had changed. There would be much to learn. I did not like the thick forests that surrounded the Kingdom much - and I was glad to see that a lot of it was felled for new construction. Ours was a growing city, after all. On my request, the Secretary of State moved our carriage to the barracks. The Central City was the heart of Syracuse, but it did not house the military. Our somewhat small forces were housed in the Barracks, which was under the control of another king.

And then I saw him at last - Prince Normander. My friend, my brother. The future commander of our great Syrenician Army. Norm, as I had come to call him, had grown up with me in the Central City by privilege of his high standing. It was important, they said, for the Emperor and his Army's commander to enjoy an excellent relationship, and that's why we were raised as brothers. But Normader was not to handle any administrative affairs and was not asked to go to the Academy - throughout our year of separation, we kept in touch. I think I wrote more letters to him than to the Emperor himself!

***

He was busy with his usual morning run across the grounds. I had never seen someone enjoy physical strain so much - Norm was born to lead the Army and he knew it. As I waited for him to finish, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I thought it was the Secretary of State asking me to leave, but it was the Royal Commander himself. I paid my greetings to him - like Norm and I, he and the Emperor were like brothers themselves and it was my duty to be respectful.

He was happy to see me as well and inquired at length about my time at the Academy. And then he asked his Secretary of the Army to summon Norm. "We must not keep the Prince-Emperor waiting," he said, with a smile.

After seeing the Royal Gates, I did not think I could have enjoyed a sense of happiness as great as that. But the moment Normander and I saw each other, we knew that both of us had been waiting for this moment with equal impatience. We paid our formal courtesies to the Commander and stood face to face for a moment - and then we hugged. The warm embrace of my brother brought back all those wonderful memories that I had buried somewhere deep in my mind.

"Welcome back, dear brother," he said, smilingly warmly. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Battery

It is a well-established practice for employers to take a pre-employment medical test for fresh recruits. The usual reasons are to ensure that there is no unexpected complication at the workplace and also to get the right kind of insurance cover. However, experience tells us that most companies have a standard way of doing things anyway and they just make it a formality.

Not so ITC. My future employer asked us seven new recruits from IITR to have our test taken in a hospital in Delhi. So merely two days after I returned to Roorkee from Japan, I was back in Delhi. And because the appointment was for 8:30 AM, we had to leave at an unearthly time. Fortunately, we went by taxi, so it was decently comfortable.

The problem was, of course, the incessant rain in the region that significantly slowed us down. And time was definitely scarce: the tests took about seven hours and all and covered more parameters than I could make any sense of. Sadly, they have not shared the results with us and will be sending it straight to ITC.

A long, tired day in a hospital for more tests that I have even taken cumulatively in my entire life hence! Life is just beginning, presumably. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Destination Japan

For the next ten days, I'm off to Japan to participate in the Kizuna Project - the word meaning 'Bond' (as in bonds of friendship) in Japanese. It's a unique program conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to create awareness about the reconstruction efforts after the Great Eastern Earthquake devastated the Asian superpower among students in the greater Asia area and America.

I never really expected to be back in another country so soon after the amazing DAAD experience. Although I will be missing a lot of classes for this, it is well worth it. With us will be other IITians and I'm looking forward to making some great new friends. As a civil engineer, I would be particularly interested in the earthquake-resistant construction practices and of course, the bullet trains!

As always, packing is a real pain. It's quite cold over there, as cold as a Roorkee winter, so I'm forced to carry winter clothes though I prefer travelling light. I am a bit worried about the food, given my vegetarian preference, but I guess the JICE people would have remember that a lot of Indians are vegetarian (and I say only Indians can afford that given the delicious veggie food here). We've already received a jam-packed schedule so there's nothing to really prepare for!

Another trip to another country, this should be fun!